‘Inside the White cube’
15th July – 13th September 2015
Imi Knoebel is an internationally acclaimed German artist who has a career spanning 50 years and whose work incorporates drawing, painting, sculpture, photography, installation, and projection. He has been principally influenced by the geometric abstraction of Kazimir Malevich and Piet Mondrian. Malevich’s 1915 painting Black Square liberated Knoebel, giving him “the overwhelming feeling that I could start at nothing”. He began his career, as a result, by working exclusively in black and white and exploring their potential, however when his friend and collaborator Blinky Palermo died in 1977 he began exploring the effect and power of colour as a tribute to him. His explorations are often developed in sets and series, and the themes and materials explored reappear over and over at different times and are given new meaning and relevance as they build on layers of investigation.
This is his first exhibition in London, which may reflect a shift in the public’s appreciation of modernist abstraction. It was interestingly timed to coincide with the Tate Modern’s Agnes Martin (another modernist abstract painter) exhibition down the road.
‘Imi Knoebel: Inside the White cube’ comprises two rooms of works made using acrylic paint on aluminium supports. The gallery itself is pristine with high ceilings and, on the day I went to visit, was almost empty. This exaggerated the sense of stillness; the door to the gallery is oversized and resembles the door to a great church of minimalism. Knoebel rejects all references to spirituality in his work but when you enter the vast white space where his pieces seem to float and vibrate in this expansive environment it’s difficult not make that connection. Moreover the 9x9x9 space where his seven white ‘Kites’ fly peacefully close to the ceiling, requiring you to look up at them in reverie, can so easily be compared to the nave of a church.
The space itself reflects Imi Knoebel’s work which starts from the idea that everything has already been done, so let’s start again at the beginning with something essential: colour and shape. The white cube is the perfect expressionless void for this beginning to start.
Knoebel states “Painting is a craft, you must resist the temptation to get carried away by ideas. The ideas will find their way to the work without any help from you”. He tells us to “Stay grounded”, but I don’t get that sense from this exhibition of his work at all. It feels anything but grounded. It feels light and effortless and full of meaning or potential meaning and energy.
The works include organic-shaped and geometric panels, black or white rectangles or ovals overlapping with those carved in sometimes fluorescent, warm hues of pink, orange, bright yellow. Painting and sculpture come together to test formal opposites: hard and soft edges, colour and neutrality, matt and reflective surfaces. Ort-Rosa (rose place) is a painting that, whilst denying illusionary space that may invite us to look in actually physically envelops us like a womb. Three pieces of aluminium create a corner of warm pink which the viewer can step into and feel part of. This turns the whole idea of how we experience painting and art in general on its head in such a simple and uncomplicated way. Another example of Knoebels ability to shift our perceptions of what a painting can do is in the piece “Amor Intellectualis Tafel DCCCLVI”, composed of white acrylic and mirrored glass. It reflects the gallery’s architecture, changing as you approach from different angles. Fringed with red and pink, “Molani” balances the minimalist white grid, black cubes and the recurring Modernist motif of the open window. Although these pieces, along with the kites, are all successful at altering what painting can do spatially and perceptually, the works that really inspired me personally were the organic shaped interlocking shapes painted in subtle shades and some fluorescent hues.
Imagine being presented with a box of coloured wooden blocks, they are beautiful simple shapes and colours, they are simple, even humble objects and they are attractive because of the potential they convey. They require you to manipulate them, stack them, rearrange them, and create with them. Knoebel’s work alludes to this same potential to rearrange and create again with the shapes that slot together but could easily be separated.
His lifelong idol Kasimir Malevich believed that “the painting does not represent a living form a painted surface is a living form itself”. And Frank Stella later said “What we recognize here, as we move, is that colour is spatial, not only in the sense that it works optically to create space, but also more fully in that it occupies and articulates our environment”. The painting as an object is therefore an entity that we can interact with and which asserts its presence within the space that it occupies.
According to the artist Robert Irwin, in western culture there has always been a hierarchy of looking at things, where meaningfulness is bestowed on some things and not on others. Modernism criticized this hierarchy of looking and Cubism flattened figure and ground giving them the same importance. In this sense the subject or object of value is no longer isolated and the painting has to deal with its environment. As a result, painting started to address physicality rather than imagery.
The physicality addressed in this collection of works portrays aspects of a very solid nature such as the use of metal, the undisguised brush marks and the size and scale of the work. However, all of this is contradicted by the pastel hues and fluorescent shimmers, the reflective parts and the illusion of lightness and an overall feeling of calm. They are not monumental pieces, but they assert their space, they are not aggressive or dramatic but they have a significant presence and understated power.